One of the best ways to get to know a destination is through its food. What is grown there, what is seasonal, what is lovingly prepared and savoured to the last bite. John and I took a little vacation to Ottawa in late August and through ByWard Market and C’est Bon Cooking, we had an experience that left our hearts, and bellies, full.
ByWard Market is one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets, with indoor and outdoor vendors, street entertainment, shopping, dining, and aromas that tickle your nose and make you want to eat everything in your path. It’s the birthplace of the Beavertail, home of the Obama cookie, has an Authors Market with books, hosts 260 stands, and over 500 businesses that are open 363 days a year. It’s Ottawa’s number one attraction!
We met up with Stephanie Siska from C’est Bon Cooking, who hosts gourmet food tours in the area as well as cooking classes. We were doing both that day, first shopping for our local ingredients in the market, then heading off to C’est Bon’s kitchen studio to cook it all up for lunch.
Visiting the market at the peak of tomato season, garlic season, and almost everything else green, yellow, red and grown in the valley was a feast for the senses. Whether coming from the Greenbelt – the largest publicly owned greenbelt in the world – that surrounds the city, or one of the 1,000 surrounding farms, you can tell what’s local based on the signage at the market.
Stephanie explained that a green banner above a stall means the person is selling 100% locally grown or raised products. A yellow sign means the vendor has 60% locally grown or raised products for sale, and products that have come from anywhere have a red sign.
Our tour group picked up tomatoes, beets, Labrador tea, chokecherry syrup, birch syrup, and maple vinegar. We chatted with vendors including Maple Country Sugarbush, where John and I also picked up some maple syrup sugar to use in our Old Fashioneds at home.
C’est Bon Cooking
Ottawa is home to the only Cordon Bleu cooking school in North America, and with all of these luscious ingredients around, it’s no wonder it attracts such inspired and creative chefs. C’est Bon’s co-owner, Georges Laurier, met us in the kitchen as we were about to eat take part in preparing a meal with our ByWard bounty.
Georges has been working in the culinary arts since he was 15 years old, growing up in Gatineau, Quebec just across the river from Ottawa. His career took him to Switzerland, France, New York, Frankfurt, and to recent television appearances on Food Network’s Cook Like A Chef.
There were 6 people in our little tour group and we each had a task, which represented a key part of the meal prep but also individual courses and classes you can take at C’est Bon. While I didn’t get to test my knife skills (the others did a far better job anyway) I did perfect my sauté flip as I roasted the sunflower seeds for our salad.
A succulent Arctic Char was popped into the over while we prepared a Labrador tea, spruce tips, and wild mustard vinaigrette. It was pretty genius of Georges to use tea as a pre-made herb mixture, I would have never thought of that. Spruce tips also, very interesting. Marinated in olive oil I would expect them to taste like artichoke hearts but naturally they reminded me of Christmastime with their pleasant evergreen-and-caper aftertaste.
Georges says he wants to “create that Canadian experience, from ingredients to food,” with each visitor. Showing them the foundations of great meals that they can build themselves with easy-to-follow recipes and kitchen skills.
The resulting meal was divine: A salad with shallots, wild mustard, birch syrup, lime zest, garlic flower, and more drizzled over greens and the Arctic Char hot out of the oven. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, with ingredients that came from farms, to market stall, to stove, to fork, to mouth.
C’est Bon offers 9 different culinary tours and a dozen types of cooking classes. Stephanie and Georges’ knowledge and passion is abundant, and with their patience, good nature, and enthusiasm, you’ll have fun while learning a lot about Ottawa history, its food scene, and cooking in general.
John and I did a cooking class event at Middleground Farms in Oregon last fall, and now after our C’est Bon Cooking experience, I’m determined to do a food tour and/or cooking class wherever we go on vacation next.